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The Business of Horror

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I spoke on a panel recently, addressing a lot of film students in Los Angeles on the subject of horror filmmaking. On most subjects, the panel, consisting of professional horror writers, directors, producers and a couple managers, was in sync on how we felt about the business, how we’ve survived, and what bits of wisdom we threw out to the new crop of filmmakers about to hit the real world. 

But there was one place where we were very divided. And in reality, we were actually a very strong microcosm for the business of film as a whole. We represented the people who know what we’re doing and those who don’t, but who follow trends and spout catchphrases and biz-speak.

One of the students’ questions was, (and I’m paraphrasing), “If I make my feature for $10,000, can I expect a fair shake from buyers and distributors, versus a studio or even low budget ($1 million) horror film?”

And this is where the panel divided into two camps. On the one hand, the managers shook their heads and clucked their tongues with pity at the sad, naive, young, hopeful filmmaker. They told him that an audience in a darkened theatre doesn’t give a damn what he spent, they want spectacle and they want the film to look JUST AS GOOD in production value as a big studio film that they would have to shell out the same money to see. 

“You know,” said one of the managers condescendingly, “This IS show-BUSINESS after all.”

The disdain I felt for their bullshit attitude must have registered on my face because the question came down the line to me next. And I’ll tell you what I told them.

“It is show business,” I said, “My fellow panelist is correct about that much. But remember what word comes first there - SHOW. It’s Show business, not the other way around, which means the show comes first, which means the content comes first, which means the story and the character and the concept come first... THEN the business. THEN the value. And not the other way around. 

An audience member sitting in the darkened theater DOES know the difference between a new Chris Nolan Batman film and a heartfelt, hand-crafted indie horror film. And they adjust their expectations accordingly. Horror fans are not idiots. On the contrary, they’re some of the smartest people in the smartest booths at Comicon. And to sweepingly say that they want the same thing from YOU, an indie filmmaker, as they want from J.J. Abrams, is horseshit.  They know the difference, even if this ill informed manager does not. 

If audiences want production value in horror, then why have films that laughed in the face of contemporary production value like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, BLAIR WITCH, and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY - films that were made OUTSIDE the studio system by “amateurs” become the classics that they have? Because the filmmakers put the horror (character, story, concept) first. Not production values. There are even some who argue that production value adds safety and normalcy to a film and that’s exactly what you DON’T WANT an audience to feel. You want them to feel like they’re in the hands of a dangerous filmmaker.

So I guess the bottom line is this - Make your film for $10,000 and don’t obsess over which excellent camera you shoot it on, don’t worry about big sets and explosions and special effects. Worry about the story. Worry about the concept. Worry that anyone will give a damn about your character. 

Once you’re confident that you have a solid story with a character that audiences can really get behind, then make your film. And for God’s sakes, don’t listen to the people who make a living saying “no” to creative people. 

Now go make good art. The business will follow. It is SHOW-business, after all. 

Gaudium Per Atrox.

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